BERLIN — Seeking to describe the fractious, stalled nature of the Russian opposition working in exile, Abubakar Yangulbaev, a young Chechen human rights defender, referred to a Russian fable from the early 1800s called “Swan, Pike and Crawfish.”
The three incompatible animals, all harnessed to the same cart, pull constantly in different directions, so that it never moves, Mr. Yangulbaev said.
“We all have different goals — the only thing that we have in common is the struggle against Putin’s regime and ending the war in Ukraine,” he said in an interview. “We stand together with Ukraine, that is the main point, but when it comes to Russia internally, we do not stand together at all.”
To address that issue, nearly 300 mostly young Russians activists from across the diaspora as well as from inside Russia — feminists, politicians, gay rights advocates, representatives of Indigenous people and many others — gathered in Berlin over the weekend to start hammering out a common agenda.
There was a consensus that Russia needed to confront the long chain of violent repression that links the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the country under President Vladimir V. Putin, participants said, even if the activists acknowledge how difficult any change will be.
“You cannot build a state on violence; it was the common ground under everything in the Soviet Union and in Russia,” said Inna Berezkina of the Moscow School of Civic Education, one of the organizers. “It will be up to those who did not start this war to lead the society out of the rut, and that takes a lot of strength. You have to understand the depth of society’s decline, understand how much we, our parents, our grandparents and many generations before them are involved in this.”
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Russian opposition figures abroad have historically been a quarrelsome bunch, and the current crop is no different. They have never been able to settle on one leader of the movement, for example, and conferences have erupted into arguments over issues like whether the current conflict should be called “Putin’s war” or “Russia’s war” or whether this is 1917 all over again.
Alexei Navalny, having run as a candidate in Russian elections, is probably the only politician with the credentials and the charisma to claim the mantle of a legitimate leading opposition figure, but he is in jail for the foreseeable future. His lieutenants decided to avoid working with other exiled groups, suggesting it would require too much time and energy that would be better spent opposing Mr. Putin.
Ask other activists, especially younger ones, about Russians who assert themselves as potential opposition leaders, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil oligarch jailed by Mr. Putin, or Garry Kasparov, the chess champion, and the response is likely to be universal: They have long been removed from Russia and represent only themselves. An attempt in October by a small group including numerous regional politicians from decades ago to form a “government in exile” was also met with scorn as lacking any popular mandate.
The absence of a unifying figure is keenly felt, as is any agreement on how broad to make their goals. “We do not have a united opposition, we have no leaders, we don’t understand what we should do,” said Polina Yelina, 35, an internet technology specialist who fled the country to save her two college-age sons from military conscription.
After attending two conferences organized several months apart in Lithuania by the Free Russia Forum, Ms. Yelina said that she felt that one was an exact replica of the other, with little creativity or diversity of ideas.
Everyone acknowledges the difficulty involved in bringing about change, given that Russia under Mr. Putin has outlawed even the most mundane opposition activity and forced much of civil society into exile rather than face time in a penal colony. More and more activists have been officially designated “foreign agents,” a resurrected Stalinist label implying that they are traitors.
“Hopefully sooner or later the guns will be silent and then Russia will have left Ukraine, but then what comes next?” Tobias Lindner, a senior official at the German Foreign Ministry, which helped underwrite the Berlin gathering, said in a speech. “Right now it seems up in the air in what direction Russia will develop.”
He called the activists the “democratic hope for a future Russia.”
With each major historical transition, from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation, the country had never reckoned with its past, said Mr. Yangulbaev, 30, the Chechen activist whose mother has been imprisoned by Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic’s strongman leader.
Mr. Yangulbaev noted as an example the banned Russian human rights organization Memorial, a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The group had compiled a list of 3,000 possible war crimes during the two wars that were waged to prevent Chechnya from breaking away from Russia. Only a few of the perpetrators were jailed, according to Memorial.
He also noted that some opposition groups just want to save Russia, some want to dismantle it and others have an highly progressive agenda.
“If we cannot solve our internal problems, we will always have external problems, there will be more Ukraines,’’ he said. “Russia will go on just the same even if it loses.”
Representatives of Indigenous groups also sought to highlight that a disproportionate number of soldiers from their generally impoverished regions are being mobilized — and are dying. “It’s not our war, that is the main idea,” said Lana Kondakova, a representative of the Free Yakutia Foundation, Yakutia being one of the largest regions in Siberia, rich in diamonds and other resources.
“What is important to us right now is whether the Russian Federation will retain its current form or whether it will be transformed into a different kind of state,” added Aldar Erendhzhenov, a member of Free Kalmykia, another Indigenous rights group.
Some of those trying to effect change are working from inside Russia despite facing up to 15 years in jail for criticizing the war. One regional legislator, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said he was happy to take a breather from being inside Russia just to be able to use the word “war” to describe the conflict without facing criminal charges.
“I really want to not feel alone in fighting Putin’s regime and its military appetite,” he said.
The legislator noted that one of the failings of those agitating for change from the outside is that they forget that issues like economic sanctions or the lack of geopolitical support for Russia are too abstract for ordinary Russians. And the unrelenting negative views of the country presented by opposition media do not align with their views of Russia or the war.
Perhaps the most daunting task facing the opposition, unified or not, is to try to influence change from abroad. “My colleagues and I ask ourselves this question every day: What we can do outside to change the mood inside Russia?” said Natalia Baranova, 29, who works with both an organization called the Greenhouse for Social Technology and the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, a protest group formed when the war started last February.
The group has managed to aid small-scale protests domestically, including distributing antiwar leaflets, and produced a petition against mobilization that a few thousand mothers of draftees signed.
One idea bandied about is that both Ukraine and Russia will need some form of Marshall Plan, the American effort after World War II to transform Germany from its Nazi past into a vibrant democracy. But that was done under occupation, activists noted, while any attempt to reconstitute Russia and to shine a harsh spotlight on decades of repression will have to be done by Russians themselves.
The entire country needs to rid itself of its “empire state of mind,” said Ms. Berezkina, a conference organizer. “If this quantum leap does not happen, perhaps even the end of the war and the victory of Ukraine will not save the situation.”
Aline Lobzina contributed reporting.